You Are Paying For It After All

I was reading an article recently in the California Aggie that spoke of the trouble attracting UC Davis students to the Mondavi Center (article no longer available). Since student fees underwrite the Center’s programs, the administration would like to see more students attending. Only 13% of students attend performances that include people like Michael Moore, Bill Clinton, Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman. When dance and theatre department shows are in the spaces, attendance jumps to 50% (though ticket prices drop).

Granted, students may be required to see the departmental shows which may boost attendance. That is about the only element besides price I could see given reasons like lack of incentive and interest and difficulty securing good seats. Certainly the same could be said of the department shows.

This is a problem I have been faced with when working at universities and a question people ask if I have a solution to. I don’t really have a solution at all outside of the usual channels of student newspapers, etc. Given how much people use email and instant messaging devices, that would certainly be a direction to explore. It would just be a matter of finding an effective opportunity to get students to provide their addresses so you can send updates. How to make sure your messages don’t get ignored like so much spam is another thing altogether.

Given my philosophy of making it easy for people to make a decision to attend, I was attracted to the Mondavi Center’s tactic of putting daily ads in the student paper that only had the student prices listed rather than a half page ad with all the pricing listed which ran only once. Apparently it has begun to pay off for them as student ticket purchases for the remaining 50 shows of the season (out of a season of about 120 events) has risen to 17.2%.

The Center would also like their audience to reflect the racial diversity of their constituency base, but haven’t found as promising an answer to that as they have with their students.

It strikes me that more and more in the future appeals will be made to audience segments rather than audiences in general. The very fact that people can find programs pitched directly to their interests on the myriad cable channels means people’s vision is becoming increasingly tunneled.

I recently saw a program that pointed out that in the 1970s, a prime time program on one of the 3 available networks was ranked around 40 in the Nielsens and had something in the neighborhood of 17% of the viewers. Today shows like Survivor which are heralded as shows everyone is watching are actually only attracting 17% of the viewers because of all the choices available. The failures of yesteryear are counted as the blockbuster successes of today.

Usually, arts organizations can’t even consider advertising on TV and that is even more of an impediment today if you have to consider that one part of your demographic predominantly watches the Home and Garden channel, another A&E, another the History Channel, Discovery, TLC, etc.

The fact they are catered to changes people’s expectations slowly in other areas as well. They may seek newspapers, social groups, radio stations, etc that cater specifically to them rather than ones that are generally aligned with their interests. Trying to reach people is going to become increasingly difficult as time goes on I believe.

I will try to find some research that supports or refutes this idea, but until then. Anyone have any comments or thoughts?

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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